The Fragility of Digital Technology: preserving sound files

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Due to several floods in our local area the phone-line supporting the internet has been damaged. Static emmanates from the phone and the internet connection now cuts out regularly. Listening to this white noise I am reminded of the fragile nature of our digital environment.
Since the beginning of the year massive electrical storms, cyclones and floods have repeatedly interrupted the power supply and communications infrastructure along Australia’s east coast. For days and then weeks it was impossible to access the internet, a scorch-mark along a wall signalling where a lightning strike had burn out the local phone lines. Once the flood waters receded and the electricity was able to be reconnected my computer crashed. These disruptions forced me to question the fragility of a society living in the digital age. In relation to field recording I questioned the long-term fate of our digital sound files.

For thousands of years the progression of human civilisation has been documented in physical forms which can still easily be read today. From ancient cave paintings and engravings in stone to writings on papyrus and paper our heritage has been recorded and archived through significant eras of social political and artistic change. Adding to this is the recent explosion in digital communication technology. A multitude of websites, blog-posts, journals, books, newspapers are published online on a daily basis – it truly is a communicative revolution. Yet the technology which has fostered this is developing at such a rate that we are running the risk of losing data as its formats become outdated. The rise in information technology is paradoxically creating a vacuum for future historians and archivists who may wish to study this era.

Many of us have noticed how quickly websites disappear. Websites that carry significant information today may be discontinued tomorrow and unlike the printed media once dismantled no trace of them remains for the benefit of future generations. Their collective absence leaves a black hole in our cultural and social identity. Digital historians have noted that many websites retrieved from the past are unable to be read as the plug-ins or hardware that once supported them are now non-existent. In our excitement about the possibilities of the digital era we have overlooked the value of maintaining our heritage. Historical artefacts such as the world’s first website and the world’s first email have already been lost.

What are the ramifications for us as field recordists? A quick look at some statistics should force us to consider the long-term survival of our wav and mp3 files. In an article about preserving digital history Cohen and Rosenzweig state that a significant fraction of collections from the 1980s of audio CDs, one of the first digital formats to become widely available to the public, may already be unplayable. The Library of Congress, which holds roughly 150,000 audio CDs in conditions almost certainly far better than those of personal collections, estimates that between 1 and 10 percent of the discs in their collection already contain serious data errors.

Compounding the problem is the built-in obsolescence of modern computer hardware and software – much of what we use now is designed to have a short shelf-life in order to drive the consumer demand for new technological products. Without regular updating, which may result in a loss of fidelity, our digital files may be rendered unreadable in the future. Chen elaborates on this problem by stating: Despite our information technology investments, there is a critical, cumulative weakness in our information infrastructure. Long-term preservation of digital information is plagued by short media life, obsolete hardware and software, slow read times of old media, and defunct Web sites. Indeed, the majority of products and services on the market today did not exist five years ago. More importantly, we lack proven methods to ensure that the information will continue to exist, that we will be able to access this information using the available technology tools, or that any accessible information is authentic and reliable.

Many of us working in field recording approach the discipline from an archivist’s perspective. It is therefore essential to preserve our recordings beyond the lifetime of a single computer program or operating system. Unfortunately not enough information exists about the shelf life of digital storage formats or the future possibilities of retrieval capabilities to formulate a plan to protect our files. Currently each solution has certain disadvantages: migrating files to newer systems can be time-consuming and repetitive; files which are replicated and saved on different hardware might eventually become unreadable without migrating them; emulating old hardware to run outdated software requires money and expertise. There is also the problem of knowing which of your sound files will have archival worth, something which is normally judged retrospectively.

If these solutions seem overwhelming you should at least back-up your sound files by saving them on an external hard-drive or cd-rom. This is an obvious piece of advice but one which I had failed to follow regularly until the date my computer crashed. The sickening thought that I had lost all of my field recordings and compositions was so immense that I won’t be making that mistake again anytime soon.

2 thoughts on “The Fragility of Digital Technology: preserving sound files

  1. martin

    Well, this is an interesting problem, for it inevitably leads to a paradox, or coexistence of contradiction, without necessarily producing some sort of a synthesis.
    The terms of the movement of this thinking: technology as a producer and technology as a sustainer of its products.
    It’s a strange interdependence in many ways: technology enables us produce what it makes extinct with time. That is: in a material movement of technology previous technological forms become extinct, and usually without a trace – I don’t think we have first written paper, let alone first whatver humanity used to write on in a wake of technology of writing as such.
    What is more interesting here is that writing as such remains for in technological movement it became separated from its material way of record. History is then better seen as empowerment through ability to abstract and not material survival of original forms.
    The same, I believe applies to sound/music recording – from paper as only record, to tape, disc, digital writing. The idea of recording sound is fully there and it will continue to be embodied in more extended forms. Heck, it could be that certain digital outline of some concrete sound could be written down in a sort of notation – enabling the same technology that made impossible its previous forms to function to recreate the sound.
    While it may sound very unromantic (subjective feeling of being the recorder gone), the record itself prevails. Like music of old masters prevails, though we have no original performance.
    So one can see digital development as technological self-overcoming of its initial limits – paper records through tape, disc records up to very possible peek of self-replicating recording. In case of field recording, that is all there is. The performers and original recorders gone, there is still a record that can be replicated by it becoming possible to ‘notate’ sound as something else.

    As for personal loss of lossless files, well, we can’t expect all of the records survive. I have lost lots of my musical things to various hard disk miscariages and I have no track record of what I was doing in the wake of my journey, though I have vague memories.

    In a way, that’s how I like it to be.

    Reply
    1. soundslikenoise Post author

      Thanks Martin – I like what you say regarding the empowerment through the ability to abstract rather than the survival of its original forms.Yet the more I think about it this was something that was in place centuries if not thousands of years ago. It is only now in the “information age/digital age” that we are threatening ourselves with the development of a black hole for those who want to study life at the beginning of this monumental period in time. To lose your own files is an annoyance, but for a society to lose huge traces of thought due to a reliance upon a fallible form of storage is something quite worse.

      Reply

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